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Merchant-Ivory's new clothes

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In their film version of E.M. Forster's A Room with a View, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory make an error that quite possibly is a first for book-to-screen adaptations: they make the sex less controversial.  Specifically, they uncouple the sex from religion, stripping the romance between Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson of the trappings of transcendence and holiness in which Forster had clothed it.  In place of Foster's couple surrendering to the divinity of sexually-vibrant love, Merchant and Ivory give us a pair relieving themselves of silly Victorian repression in order to obtain self-fulfillment.  Superficially persuasive, perhaps, but not what Forster wrote.

In A Room with a View, Forster's didactic side is irrepressible and insistent on teaching that God is in the pleasures of the flesh, that religion errs when it banishes the body from the realm of the holy, and that the only correct response to desire is to act upon it. 

"Passion is sanity," admonishes old Mr. Emerson, and "love is of the body. . . . Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul!" 

Mr. Emerson's words succeed in "robb[ing] the body of its taint," and his version of reality thereby prevails over that of poor, likable Reverend Mr. Beebe, who agrees to help Lucy because of his "belief in celibacy" and his determination that, by "plac[ing] [Lucy] out of danger until she could confirm her resolution of virginity," he is helping "not only Lucy, but religion also." 

Mr. Beebe's soul shall not be liberated, not in A Room with a View.  

Not when Lucy runs off with George Emerson after finally grasping "the holiness of direct desire."  Sex with George in the loving context of matrimony is a sacred imperative to E.M. Forster.

To Merchant and Ivory, it's little more than an opportunity for an orgasm.  Gone from the film's dialogue are Mr. Emerson's references to the holy-carnal.  (Indeed, the film splits up his critical interview with Lucy, having Mr. Emerson spend half the time speaking to Lucy's spinster cousin, Charlotte, a prude on whom such a sermon would have been wasted.)  Nor does the film include any inkling of Mr. Beebe's religious abstinence.  As for "the holiness of direct desire," all we get is the genial approbation of sexual longing acknowledged and acted upon in a socially responsible way.  In place of the ecstasy and rapture of Saint Theresa, we get Dr. Ruth.  Superficially persuasive, perhaps, but not what Forster wrote.

In a moment of irony, the film includes a quote of something Forster did write: "Mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes."  Possibly Merchant and Ivory felt that makers of costume dramas are exempted from this wisdom.  To the contrary: new clothes often signal new values.  And while it might seem easy to understand the cut of an Edwardian dress, it may be less difficult to comprehend that a modern, sexual-health marriage doesn't fit inside it.
(Image of Helena Bonham-Carter in the Merchant-Ivory film version of A Room with a View from Duke University's website)

With failure like this, who needs success?

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My last post constituted a kind of footnote to my penultimate post, and now I have to confess something embarrassing about footnotes: I've never written just one.  They always seem to proliferate on me.

So here's another footnote to that penultimate post, in which I casually referred to E.M. Forster's A Room with a View as, variously, "uneven" and "at times . . . implausible."  I hadn't included any evidence supporting those judgments in the post and, though I think the judgments are warranted, I also think that, without elaboration, they're unfair.  So I elaborate.

My concerns rest on two scenes.  Both involve conversational confrontations that lead to personal transformations.  Both seem to reflect, not human behavior as lived and observed, but characters' behavior as imagined by an optimistic author determined to craft salvation for his creations, whether deserving or no.

In the first scene, Lucy Honeychurch tells Cecil Vyse, her fiancé, that she won't marry him.  As her reason, she proffers that he's "the sort who can't know any one intimately."  She condemns him for "always protecting" her and not "let[ting] me be myself."  She calls him "conventional" because he "may understand beautiful things," but he doesn't "know how to use them."  (p. 201.)

Cecil, up until this point, has been controlling, condescending and conniving about getting his way.  He seems well-defended against any reality that shows his asshole personality.  Nor does his asshole personality seem to encompass being a good sport about rejection.  Nonetheless, wholly outside of his character, he replies:

It is true.
. . . .
True, every word.  It is a revelation.  It is - I.
. . . .
He repeated: "'The sort that can know no one intimately.'  It is true.  I fell to pieces the very first day we were engaged.  I behaved like a cad to Beebe and to your brother.  You are even greater than I thought."
(p. 202.)  Then, with dignity and grace, and without much further ado, he departs.

Now I have, in my day, broken up with one or two men.  I've also taken other men to task for asshole behavior, actions which - in a more or less direct way - led to them breaking up with me.  And based on these experiences, I find Cecil's response so implausible that I'm tempted to hazard that E.M. Forster has never witnessed - or received an accurate second-hand account of - an actual break-up between a male and a female.

This scene is a contrivance.  Resulting not from organic interaction between the characters, but from authorial sentimentality for Cecil and a need to advance the plot and deepen Lucy's character development, the scene is a gentle redemption of Cecil that paves the way for Lucy's redemption two chapters on.  Unsurprisingly, Lucy's redemption is the second scene with which I take issue.

In this second engineered exchange, George Emerson's father talks Lucy into marrying George.  His technique is a bit brutal by Edwardian standards.  He "mean[s] to shock" Lucy with references to the carnal: "I only wish poets would say this, too: love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. . . . Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul!"  And he warns Lucy that, "It isn't possible to love and to part. . . . You can transmute love, ignore it, muddle it, but you can never pull it out of you.  I know by experience that the poets are right: love is eternal."  (p. 237.)  He urges her, "When I think what life is, and how seldom love is answered by love - Marry him; it is one of the moments for which the world was made."  (p. 238.)

This entreaty frightens Lucy, but it also revolutionizes her.  Despite her commitment to travel to Greece, despite having spent her mother's money on travel arrangements, despite being revealed as untrustworthy and unreliable to her family and Mr. Beebe, despite her ordinariness, prudishness and inexperience, she will now radically alter her life's course and marry George.  Mr. Emerson's speech had "robbed the body of its taint, the world's taunts of their sting; he had shown her the holiness of direct desire."  (p. 240.)

Without getting too graphic, I'll assert that I think I know a thing or two about the holiness of direct desire, and I've never experienced it in conversation with a lover-to-be's father.  I won't go so far as to say that my experience is definitive, but I feel myself on comfortable ground calling this scene, as I did previously, a deus ex machina.  It's a wondrous machine for transporting sheltered little Lucy into the wide-open world of adult love . . . but none of us have ever traveled in such a machine because it doesn't exist.  What does exist - and what constitutes the conduit from innocence to sexual maturity that most (if not all) of us traverse - is a poorly-lit path, pitted with potholes and lined with muggers and thieves.

This reliance on artifice and contrivance, rather than the grit of reality, may be one reason why Forster is so often demoted from the top ranks of novelists:  "There's something middling about Forster," writes Zadie Smith in The New York Review of Books, "he is halfway to where people want him to be."

And yet, despite my own objections to Forster's rude artifice, despite my sense that it adds "uneven" and "implausible" elements to his work, I don't think these flaws make Forster "middling."  Shakespeare, too, is uneven (Henry VIII anyone?) and implausible elements abound in his works (A Winter's Tale, hello?); still, Shakespeare is tops, and anyone who disagrees is a "three-inch fool."

Forster reached for artifice (I'm guessing) for the best reasons: he was imagining a world that didn't exist.  He was giving us a nudge to head for the horizon and, if his vision of what lay beyond didn't accord with what was actually there, it doesn't make him less of a visionary.  As Zadie Smith notes about Forster's literary criticism, he had an uncanny ability to be "right" about his contemporaries, to make judgments with which later generations agree - to see accurately in the midst of the thicket. 

Forster, I think, had the same gift of insight about human behavior.  What he seems to have lacked in A Room with a View was the ability to imagine the alternatives that humans eventually adopted, as well as the literary and narrative capacities to allow his characters to lead him where he wouldn't have otherwise have gone.  Still, a truly middling novelist is unlikely to have failed as graciously, and as entertainingly thought-provokingly, as Forster.     
(Image of E.M. Forster from BBC)

Going nude is better than going stoned

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As a medium, blog posts - like any medium - have their strengths and weaknesses, and one of these (either a strength or weakness, take your pick) is that blog posts are not especially accommodating of footnotes.  A footnote is, like, another blog post.

So here's a footnote to my prior post about E.M. Forster casting a fumbling male as a romantic lead in A Room with a View.  My comments about males fumbling their way through courtship would benefit from a caveat.  I wrote, "The fumbling man is the honest man, while the man who proceeds according to script, regardless of the circumstances, is not actually responding to the world around him. . . . if you want to live, you have to fumble," without qualifying that fumblers fall into two categories: (1) those who "step up"; and (2) those who don't. 

The fumblers who are "responding to the world" - who are living life without a rehearsal, to paraphrase Forster - are generally the former and not the latter.  The guys who won't "step up" are just as "unwilling to confront uncertainty and roll with it" and just as "defended against humiliation to risk genuine connection" as the straight-laced guy who never makes a wrong move.

And one reason why, culturally, we've "yet [to] work out the serious narrative of how the boy gets the girl when he's fumbling his way the whole time" is because the current crop of American male fumblers are of the latter category.  They do not "step up."  They fumble not by kissing women when they shouldn't or running around naked when they should be clothed (as George in A Room with a View does), but by getting stoned every day and generally being too passive.  As any author knows, coaxing a plot line out of a passive protagonist ain't easy. 

The obvious fix is that our passive fumblers need to step up, even though how we are to convince them to do so is not obvious.  As Forster describes an analogous quandary in A Room with a View:

It is obvious enough for the reader to conclude, "She loves young [George] Emerson."  A reader in Lucy's place would not find it obvious.  Life is easy to chronicle, but bewildering to practice, and we welcome "nerves" or any other shibboleth that will cloak our personal desire.  She loved Cecil; George made her nervous; will the reader explain to her that the phrases should have been reversed?
(p. 165.)  Men love dope; women make them nervous; will the reader explain to them that the phrases should have been reversed?

Forster provides - not a reader - but another character to assist Lucy Honeychurch: George's father, the wise and eccentric Mr. Emerson, who functions as the deus ex machina, the instrument of revelation who during a single conversation withdraws "veil after veil" until Lucy sees "to the bottom of her soul."  (p. 238.) 

Forster's solution doesn't seem replicable on a large scale (or, truth be told, even on an individual level).  But in the absence of the artifice of a deus ex machina, allow me to harness the artifice of Web 2.0 communications networks to pass on this simple truth: stepping up makes life more fun. 

And, on the off chance that my message in this context proves insufficient, that the serious narrative of how the boy gets the girl when he's fumbling his way the whole time can't be worked out in a foot note to a blog post, I've got a novel planned . . . .

(Image from the film version of A Room with a View from Fotolog)

Scoring with awkward courtship

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What passes for masculinity is a fashion, at least as much as it is innate.  Rhett Butler doesn't fumble in his pursuit of Scarlett; Ben Stone does nothing but fumble with Allison Scott (in Knocked Up, not quite the culture icon that Gone with Wind has become) - call it the difference that seventy years makes in our mythologies of gender relations.

Maybe it's my generation, but I've always been more interested in male fumbling.  (Granted, I haven't seen much non-fumbling; cultivating an interest in it strikes me as akin to obsessing over unicorns.)  Male fumblers make good in my second novel, The Swing of Beijing, and have a nervous breakdown in my third novel, Waiting for Love Child.  Indeed, I'm so interested in male fumblers that a previous agent told me that I "channel" men and that I need to stop doing it.

Well, the male fumbler may have been banished from my fourth novel, The Celebration Husband, but my interest hasn't abated.  Indeed, E.M. Forster piqued it with this passage from A Room with a View:

[George's] awkwardness went straight to [Lucy's] heart; men were not gods after all, but as human and as clumsy as girls; even men might suffer from unexplained desires, and need help.  To one of her upbringing, and of her destination, the weakness of men was a truth unfamiliar, but she had surmised it . . . .
(p. 178.)  Forster, after all, was writing during an era when male fumblers were not the rage.  To the contrary, the decisive man, ordering the world and his woman's place in it, was the ideal.  As George protests to Lucy about her fiancé, Cecil:

I meet you together, and find him protecting and teaching you and your mother to be shocked, when it was for you to settle whether you were shocked or no. . . . He daren't let a woman decide. . . . Every moment of his life he's forming you, telling you what's charming or amusing or ladylike, telling you what a man thinks womanly.
(p. 194.)  All very sensible condemnation today, but not 103 years ago when A Room with a View was first published.  Cecil is the respectable man; George, please remember, is a freak.

That Forster defied convention to allow the fumbling freak to prevail in romance suggests a perceptiveness and sympathy about masculinity that transcends fashion.  (Of course, as a closeted gay man, Forster might have had particular insights into fumbling courtship of women; but I think his empathy was more universal.)  "[I]t is impossible to rehearse life," he writes in A Room with a View:

A fault in the scenery, a face in the audience, an irruption of the audience on the stage, and all our carefully planned gestures mean nothing, or mean too much.
(p. 154.)  The fumbling man is the honest man, while the man who proceeds according to script, regardless of the circumstances, is not actually responding to the world around him.  He is unwilling to confront uncertainty and roll with it; he is too defended against humiliation to risk genuine connection.  He is, in fact, playing at living, but not really living.  Forster teaches that, if you want to rehearse, you condemn yourself to the stage; and if you want to live, you have to fumble.

I don't think men - or women - are yet entirely comfortable with this truth.  Seth Rogen, after all, is nobody's idea of Clark Gable, and Knocked Up is a comedy.  I'm not sure we've (that is, "we" as a culture, have) yet worked out the serious narrative of how the boy gets the girl when he's fumbling his way the whole time.  As old, as uneven, and at times as implausible as it is, A Room with a View may remain our bellwether of this realm of human behavior.      

(Image of Julian Sands and Helena Bonham-Carter in A Room with a View from The Guardian)

A schlep with a view

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E.M. Forster is obviously a man who knows from experience the pain of travel.  

Having just shipped 175 pounds of personal affects (ok, ok, I admit it: books, mostly books, I'm absolutely hopeless about being parted from certain - too many, obviously - books) to China, followed by checking in another 146 pounds of luggage on my flight to China (ok, chalk that weight up to bottles of vitamins, tins of sustainably-harvested fish and other food items that I couldn't ship), and all the attendant fees that go along with such retarded materialism (or attentiveness to one's intellectual and physical health, however one chooses to view the situation), I thrilled to the following Forster description, in A Room with a View, of two spinster lady travelers:

That there are shops abroad, even in Athens, never occurred to them, for they regarded travel as a species of warfare, only to be undertaken by those who have been fully armed at the Haymarket Stores.
(p. 223.)  Need I add that these ladies were stocking up on "digestive bread" for their journey?  

In defense of Forster's spinster ladies (and myself), I proffer that bulk purchasing in advance of extended travel is a wholly rational precaution in the face of the uncertainty of conditions in foreign lands.  Quite simply, if you do it, you may feel like a jackass for hauling around a trailer's worth of goods; but if you don't do it, you'll certainly feel like a jackass for contracting food poisoning and having to stay in bed, incapacitated, with nothing to read.  I have therefore concluded that one must simply accept what Forster later describes in A Room with a View as follows:

Waste!  That word seemed to sum up the whole of life.  Wasted plans, wasted money . . . . Was it possible that she had muddled things away?
(p. 229.)  Waste (and muddle) is an unavoidable collateral effect of imperfect information.  We don't know what we can buy in Athens or Beijing, so we bring it, possibly unnecessarily, certainly at cost.  We don't know how our stomachs will behave at foreign latitudes or exposed to strange foods, so we take precautions, possibly over-cautiously, certainly at cost.  We don't know how we'll feel if we're - or how we'll deal with the anxiety of being - deprived of items that make us feel secure and healthy in the world, so we refuse to be parted from those items, possibly pigheadedly, certainly at cost.

The only solution is to make peace with the waste.  As George Emerson says in A Room with a View,

We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand, it is no good moving from place to place to save things; because the shadow always follows.  Choose a place where you won't do harm - yes, choose a place where you won't do very much harm, and stand in it for all you are worth, facing the sunshine.
(p. 176.)

I am standing in my courtyard in Beijing for all I'm worth.  I'd like to face the sunshine, but there isn't any because the sky is enveloped in a thick, depressing fog that will almost certainly cause serious damage to my lungs when I attempt to run long distances in it, as I must, since I'm training for a marathon.  The only up side is that it's nearly impossible to cast a shadow in such light, even if one has the heft of 321 pounds of stuff behind one.  At the moment, my main comfort is the (possibly misplaced) conviction that E.M. Forster would approve.

(Image of E.M. Forster from Stanfords)

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the A Room with a View category.

A Place of Greater Safety is the previous category.

Black Swan Green is the next category.



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